Education helps boost breastfeeding rates

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Gina Duwe
Tuesday, October 1, 2013

JANESVILLE--Knowledge of the many benefits of breastfeeding is spreading.

The result is an increase in the number of local mothers who choose breastfeeding over formula, hospital birthing center directors say.

It's a trend seen across the nation, where the percentage of babies breastfeeding at six months increased from 35 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2010, according to data released this summer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think, basically, parents are becoming more educated and are realizing the benefits of breastfeeding,” said Mirsa Sullivan, a lactation consultant at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center in Janesville.

Legislation also has made things easier. The Affordable Care Act now requires health insurance plans to provide breastfeeding support, counseling and equipment, including the cost of a breast pump. A 2010 Wisconsin law also gives mothers the right to breastfeed in public.

St. Mary's Janesville Hospital, which opened last year with plans in place to promote breastfeeding, averages about 82 percent of women who begin breastfeeding at birth, said Stacy McNall, director of the birthing center. At discharge, 76 percent still are exclusively breastfeeding, she said.

Across town at Mercy, the percentage of mothers breastfeeding is in the 60s, birthing center Director Gretchen Finley said. At Mercy Walworth Hospital in Lake Geneva, the rate runs in the 80s, though Finley isn't sure what explains the difference.

“It is more acceptable now,” she said. “I think people aren't embarrassed when they see people breastfeed in public.”

Two factors that contribute to successful breastfeeding also are on the rise nationally and are happening locally: Having skin-to-skin contact and initiating breastfeeding within the first hour of birth, and keeping the mother and baby in the same room during theri hospital stay.

Doctors and nurses at both Mercy and St. Mary's are increasingly promoting breastfeeding and are offering more support after mom and baby go home. Both Janesville hospitals are in the process of becoming certified as a “Baby-Friendly Hospital.”

The initiative is a global program launched by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund. Its intent is to encourage and recognize hospitals and birthing centers that offer an optimal level of care for infant feeding and mother/baby bonding.

Logistically, this means hospitals won't give out free formula and pacifiers, nurses will need 20 hours of training on how to support women and their feeding choice, and staff will provide more information about breastfeeding and support before and after birth.

The Rock County Health Department also offers in-home support for nursing mothers through its Healthy Families First program, which is open to any Rock County resident.

“It helps to have someone physically there to help,” said Deb Erickson, public health nurse supervisor for the department. “Our nurses are able to go out and help right away. If women don't get support early on, they're more likely to quit.”

Steps required under the Baby-Friendly Hospital certification promote infant-mother bonding after birth, which McNall says results in better outcomes for both. When babies are given skin-to-skin contact with mothers to initiate breastfeeding immediately after birth, the baby's blood sugar is more controlled, he cries less frequently, is calmer and adapts better to being outside the womb, she said.

The long-term benefits are going to have a “very positive impact,” Finley said. “I know that people are going to see less allergies, less respiratory issues, and babies will be healthier all the way around.”

It also will reduce health-care costs, she said.

Studies show women make the feeding decision within the first three months of pregnancy, Finley said, leaving a small window for education. The initiative requires hospitals to be sensitive to mothers who choose to formula feed and not make them feel guilty. Staff also still needs to provide as much information about formula feeding as breastfeeding, she said.

“A lot of times, anyone who gives it a try really loves it (breastfeeding) and sticks with breastfeeding,” Sullivan said.

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